A new lawsuit seeks to roll back generous pension benefits granted to Sonoma County government employees more than a decade ago that are blamed for spiraling debt and eating away at funding for basic services.
The suit filed by retired Santa Rosa attorney George Luke accuses elected officials and other county leaders of conflict of interest for approving increases in 2003 that benefited them directly and of failing to disclose long-term pension costs to taxpayers, now estimated at more than $99 million a year for the county.
It asks Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau to declare the increases “illegal” and prohibit the county from making payments to fund them. It names as defendants the Board of Supervisors, the county administrator, the auditor-controller-treasurer tax collector, the human resources director and the Sonoma County Employees’ Retirement Association and its chief administrator.
“When everyone who is supposed to represent the interest of the taxpayer has their hand in his pocket, his only recourse is to seek the protection of the courts whose solemn duty is to require compliance with the law,” Luke wrote in his suit filed Aug. 28.
The legal challenge — which could affect thousands of current and retired county employees — comes amid continuing controversy statewide about pension benefits granted years ago that have threatened the financial well-being of local governments and strained their ability to pay for things like road repair and the hiring of more sheriff’s deputies.
Earlier this year, Sonoma County annual pension costs were projected to hit $146 million by 2023, a 700 percent increase since 2000. County debt from past pension bonds and long-term unfunded obligations tied to the retirement system total about $778 million, equivalent to 49 percent of the county’s annual budget.
Although reforms have been enacted over the past five years at the state and local level mandating lower benefits for new employees, critics continue to sound alarms over pension costs. A similar case pending before the California Supreme Court that arose in nearby Marin County seeks to overturn the so-called “California Rule” guaranteeing workers get the pension that was in place at the time they were hired. The legal challenge was previously struck down by two lower court judges who deemed it was filed too late or did not include employee unions. They did not rule on the merits.
Supervisors Shirlee Zane and David Rabbitt, who've been active on pension reform since joining the board in 2009 and 2011, respectively, did not respond to interview requests on Friday and instead issued a joint, written statement.
“While we share the desire for a sustainable pension system, this lawsuit is without merit and a waste of taxpayer dollars given results in Marin cases, public independent analysis of law following 2012 grand jury report, and new separate analysis of counsel,” the statement said. “Efforts to achieve policy changes should really be directed to the state Legislature.”
Luke’s suit targets the way benefits were adopted. It says the Board of Supervisors failed to comply with state law requiring it to conduct an actuarial analysis of the costs of new pension benefits and publish the findings two weeks before any vote. The allegation was raised in a past county grand jury report about procedural mistakes and was formally acknowledged by a new group of elected supervisors in 2012.
Sonoma County government pension costs, at glance:
2016-17 taxpayer costs: $99.6 million
Pension bond debt: $404 million
Long-term unfunded obligations: $374 million